The Brooklyn Navy Yard has finally been recognized for its historic worth. The Department of the Interior’s National Park Service added the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the National Register of Historic Places Thursday.
The Yard is located on the Brooklyn side of the East River in Wallabout Basin. Wallabout Bay is a small body of water in Upper New York Bay along the northwest shore of Brooklyn between the present Williamsburg and The Manhattan Bridge.
Wallabout Bay was a corruption of the name for the area’s first settlers who were Walloons,French Protestants who came to the new world seeking freedom. One of those Walloon families was the Rapalje family and they had the first settlement of the land that would eventually become the yard. However, they were Tories in the revolution and paid for it by losing their land. In 1784, Comfort and Joshua Sands bought a portion of the old Rapalje patent comprising 160 acres of land west of Gold Street from the Commissioners of Forfeiture, who had seized the property from John Rapelje, a Loyalist suspected of spying for the British. Comfort and Joshua Sands were brothers and business partners involved in the West India trade. They had made a fortune supplying the Continental army during the Revolutionary War.
The Sands laid out some of their land into blocks and lots for a community called “Olympia” as early as 1787. They expected Olympia to become a summer retreat for New Yorkers because of its hilly topography, plentiful water, and refreshing breezes. The Sands also hoped to make Olympia a ship building center; they built wharves and warehouses and established an extensive ropewalk to produce rigging and cables for ships. However, development was limited until another Manhattan shipbuilder John Jackson began to develop the eastern portion of the Rapalje lands, facing Wallabout Bay. John Jackson and his brothers Treadwell and Samuel purchased this 100-acre crescent-shaped tract that included a mill pond and mud flats from the Commissioners of Forfeiture following the war. Taking advantage of the existing dock on the property, the Jacksons built their own small shipyard and about ten houses for their workmen. During the 1790s, the shipyard built the frigate John Adams, then one of the largest ships afloat, for the Navy. Jackson named the area around his shipyard Vinegar Hill after the last battle in the Irish rebellion of 1798, hoping to attract Irish shipwrights to the area.
The New York Naval Shipyard was established on February 23,1801 when a land parcel of forty-two acres was brought from Jackson, for $40,000 by the federal government. Within the Navy Yard, the United States government constructed the Commandant’s Quarters (1805-06, a designated New York City Landmark) and several brick storehouses and offices. At first the yard produced gun boats for ventures against the Barbary and Caribbean pirates. In 1815, the yard launched the Fulton, the first steam-powered ocean-going vessel. Outside the yard, new houses went up to house the brass founders, caulkers, joiners, riggers, and sailmakers involved in ship building. Taverns, game rooms and a hotel also opened near the yard. In 1824 the Federal government purchased an additional thirty-five acres on Wallabout Bay for a Naval Hospital. Construction began on the main hospital building in 1830 and was completed by 1838.
The yard quickly became a source of political patronage. Supporters of victorious presidential candidates were rewarded with jobs. Democratic Congressman William Brown Maclay (1812 -1882) was a politician who used the yard’s jobs to gain political support. Congressman Maclay came from a politically powerful family and was successfully elected to Congress to represent New York City three times during the 1840’s .Maclay lived near the navy yard and took care to closely associate and find jobs (Maclay was a Baptist) for his districts Irish Catholic constituents. “When a person comes to me for employment I write a note suggesting his name to the master workmen…” Maclay later would recollect that he “very carefully selected some ten or twelve master s” that they remained in office during Democratic administrations and were subsequently removed when another party took office. Maclay was defeated by Whig Party candidate Walter Underhill in the election of 1848 and presumably his appointees lost their jobs too. In 1859 a Congressional investigation into patronage at Brooklyn naval shipyard highlighted the abuses there and at other naval shipyards. The same investigation concluded that all the political parties utilized patronage as their key to elected office.
It was the site for the construction of Robert Fulton’s steam frigate, the Fulton, launched in 1815, as well as of other historic vessels. During the Civil War, the Yard expanded its operations and its employees numbered about 6,000. At the height of its production of warships for the United States Navy, it covered over 200 acres.It built nearly a hundred war ships during its lifetime. One of the ships built in the yard was the famous battleship Maine whose destruction led to the Spanish American war. The Arizona, the North carolina and The Missouri were some of the many battleships that were built in the yard.
During World War I the Navy Yard was busy producing ships. The 1920 census reveals that many residents in this district were employed at the yard in occupations such as machinist, shipfitter, riveter, or electrician. Others worked in manufacturing, printing, sales, and office work. Due to a Harding-era disarmament treaty, no new ships were built at the yard between 1919 and 1929, however, the yard continued to house the navy’s chemical, electrical, and radio laboratories and its merchant marine training center. Portions of the yard were also used for the manufacture of assorted goods.
The New York yard underwent more major alterations during its history than any other American shipyard, particularly in the Cob Dock area, due partly to the changing size and character of vessels and partly to the small and irregular site located in a congested metropolitan area. The improvements installed during the pre-war emergency period and during the war years constituted the most comprehensive and complex reconstruction program undertaken at any yard and in many ways involved the most difficult engineering problems, particularly in regard to foundations and to reducing interferences with productive operations.
Prior to 1938, there were four drydocks, ranging from a small 349-foot stone dock to the 695-foot brick-lined concrete battleship dock No. 4. The latter was noteworthy because of the unique methods used in its construction, after conventional methods had repeatedly failed. The entire perimeter was composed of rectangular concrete wall caissons, sunk by the pneumatic method. The floor was also supported on pneumatic caissons.
The assignment of the contract for the building of the North Carolina to the yard necessitated the lengthening of this dock by 32 feet, so the ship could be docked, if necessary, after launching or during outfitting.
A project for a V-notch extension, authorized in 1938, was successfully accomplished, despite extreme difficulties occasioned by the treacherous site conditions and the proximity of the central power plant, by sinking the entire extension as a unit by compressed air methods.
The structural shop was extended by the addition of two shop bays for the fabrication of special treatment steel armor, one of which was surmounted by an additional mold loft.
Work was also begun on construction of a new 350-ton hammerhead crane for installing turrets and guns aboard the new battleships. This crane, like its counterpart at Norfolk, was of the turn-table type, rather than a pintle crame. The crane was provided with two main 175-ton trolleys, arranged in tandem on a single track, which could be operated independently or jointly, an auxiliary 50-ton trolley, with a reach of 190 feet, and an auxiliary crane of 15-ton capacity traveling on top of the main rotor or hammerhead. These installations gave these cranes a capacity of 350 tons at 115 feet reach, 175 tons at 150 feet, 50 tons at 190 feet, and 15 tons at an extreme reach of 240 feet.
In 1939, work was started on a new turret and erection shop located at the extreme west end of the yard. This project involved the acquisition of some additional land, and extensive demolition and site preparation. The building was a single bay structure, 800 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 105 feet high. The south half was equipped with welding facilities and with a mold loft. The north half was provided with two 175-ton bridge cranes for handling turrets. The crane runway was extended outside the building over a turret barge slip, the end of the building being closed by a unique group of mechanically operated doors providing almost full opening of the end of the building. This project was completed in 1940.
During World War II seventy thousand men worked in the yard. The yard worked round the clock and by the end of the war the yard could build a container ship in a single day. Many of the workers in the yard were women whose work was indispensable because so many men went off to fight in the war and America needed their service. During the war there was always the threat of sabotage. The walkways over the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges were covered so that potential spies and saboteurs could not see activity in the yard.
After the war the yard laid off many of its wartime employees. One tragic event sealed the yard’s fate. On December 19,1960 a disastrous fire broke out aboard the Constellation, an aircraft carrier in the final stages of construction at yard. Fifty workers were killed. At least 330 others were injured. A forklift operator who was moving a metal trash bin on the hangar deck accidentally pushed the bin against a steel plate. The plate shifted, and sheared off the main plug of a tank carrying 500 gallons of diesel fuel. The fuel cascaded through holes in the steel flooring to decks below. When it came in contact with “hot work,” perhaps a welder’s blowtorch or blisteringly hot metal, it began to burn, and then set a latticework of wooden scaffolding on fire.
“Ships of this class are the most complex structures ever designed by man,” a Navy commander told an inquiry commission several weeks later. Hundreds of firefighters learned that lesson the hard way.
It took them nearly 17 hours to put out the blaze. They had to contend with darkness — the lights below deck had gone out — and with flames that spread rapidly along an unfamiliar complex of passageways filled with dense smoke. But they managed to save hundreds of lives. And no firefighter died that day.
Their work was not over, though. Three days later, with stamina waning, they were called out to battle two more huge fires in Brooklyn. It was “a succession of disasters unmatched in Fire Department history,” The Times wrote on Dec. 23, 1960.
The yard was closed in 1966, ending a glorious chapter in Brooklyn history.